What will the supporting infrastructure look like in 2045? (4/11)

4. What will the supporting infrastructure look like in 2045?

  • Will the vehicles run on tracks, on the road, or on something else?
  • Will the vehicles be steered or guided?
  • Will the vehicles be segregated from other forms of transport?
  • Will the system be manually controlled, or automated?
  • If automated, will it be controlled through a centralised system or will each vehicle be independent
  • What else will be different about the infrastructure supporting public transport?

I’m assuming surface transportation is mostly going to be on-road, and the only vehicles that will be on tracks will be high frequency passenger trains, and freight trains.

I’m also guessing that freight train traffic will go down over time – the US in particular because a lot of that traffic is bulk commodities, especially coal and oil, and that is just going to disappear with changes in the energy sector as renewables become increasingly dominant. Tracks will still make sense for other goods shipped in containers and some bulk commodities . Still trucks will be able to do a lot of this, and trucks will start to get the advantages over trains because they just have a wider spatial coverage (they can go everywhere there is a road, not just where there are tracks), and will benefit relatively more from automation.  To be clear there are still some energy advantages of trains, and the costs for longer distance markets which connect places that already have trucks for the last mile (or last ten miles), trains will remain economic. But the threshold for the truck and train trade-off will change.

Private transportation will primarily be on wheels, but we should start to see the beginnings of ‘flying cars’, for lack of a better term. By 2045 we are 30 years out, small helicopters, gyrocopters, and  multicopters are not only possible but will be on the verge of being feasible for daily transportation.  I don’t think they will be widespread by that point, but I think we will be in that period then roughly where we are today with automated vehicles. People will be doing tests, there will be some pilot cases, but it won’t be widespread deployment. The energy cost will still be relatively high and the range will be lower unless there are remarkable battery breakthroughs. There will remain safety issues with ‘flying cars’ as people on the ground will be nervous.

On ground, will vehicles be steered or guided by computer? They will be autonomous, I think this is critical, that there will be no central controls, there might be connected vehicles but vehicles will all be individually, not centrally, controlled. I don’t think people would trust a central vehicle controller.

In terms of centrally controlled vehicles, there’s the risk of failure in communications, hacking into communications. I’m not terribly optimistic about the effects that connected vehicles will have. CVs might be useful in terms of ‘here I am’ type of message, vehicle-to-vehicle connectivity may be useful negotiating between two vehicles on a rural road, on a rural crossing, ‘you slow down and I’ll speed up’ type of thing. But I don’t think that will be important, the use case that they say, that they show in the demos is ‘well, there’s an icy patch ahead.’ I’m sorry, I live in Minnesota, there’s always an icy patch ahead, that’s not really informative. So I think the use case for the connected vehicles is pretty weak.  I also think the expectation that local communities will upgrade their infrastructure to make infrastructure to vehicle interaction important, is also weak.

Over the course of decades, communities will upgrade infrastructure, and one assumes they will install whatever the state-of-the-art is at the point. At that point the infrastructure can tell where cars are.  I think the more likely case is, that cities and towns start to take out traffic lights and replace them with roundabouts where they can, replace them with yield signs where they can, and leave traffic signals for places (downtowns) where intersections are oversaturated for at least part of the day.

Just as cars broadcast ‘here I am’ messages, new traffic lights will broadcast ‘I am red’ and ‘I am green’ and even when the light is going to change. Cars can speed up or slow down based on when the light is going to change, if the light ahead is about to turn red, the car slows down enough now, it can catch the next green, or if the light’s about to change to red, maybe the car speeds up a little bit to catch the tail of the green. This can squeeze a little bit more optimization out of signals. Still it’s better not to have signals at all.

My philosophy on this is that the infrastructure is going to be dumb, just because of who manages it and their incentives, and it’s the vehicles that have to have the intelligence. The roads are not going to have intelligence about steering cars.

This is not to say there will be no changes. The lanes will be painted differently in different places, because with enough narrow vehicles, roads can have half lanes.

I don’t think the road will have a lot of intelligence to it, I don’t think traffic signals will get a whole lots smarter, the main thing will be increased information, so instead of the traffic signal trying to anticipate cars and be adaptive and actuated, it will move towards a fixed cycle, but broadcasts the fixed cycle. This cycle might change in response to traffic in big cities which can afford it. Traffic signals won’t be terribly dynamic in most places. There’s enough infrastructure out there in low technology places in rural towns and so on, that’s just not going to get upgraded even in the next 30 years.

And I think sort of sadly that trains, at least in the US, will be automated after cars. It just boggles the mind as to why that would be, it seems so irrational, as trains on tracks should be easier to automate, but I think that’s how it’s going to be because of institutional reasons.

Will vehicles be segregated? I can imagine a special lane for automated cars for a period of time, so let’s say between 2025 and 2045 there might be some HOT lanes that are converted to automated vehicle only lanes, in order to get advantages of closer following distances than you would in mixed traffic. Other lanes may be converted eventually, before the whole system switches over. But this will generally not be adopted too quickly because there will still be a constituency for manually driven vehicles in the early years.